No chance of revival unless Hindi film industry starts working on content, says owner of Shimla's sole single-screen theatre

The exhibitor, who has been paying maintenance bills and staff salaries from his own pocket amid the pandemic, remains optimistic about audiences flocking to cinema halls again.

Sahil Sharma

Sukhpreet Kahlon

The story of Shahi Theatre begins in 1947 when Partition changed the course of the lives of lakhs of people. Gyan Chand was visiting Shimla, a part of the undivided Punjab province of British India, with his family in the summer of that fateful year when he learnt that he could no longer return to his home in Sialkot, also a part of Punjab but now in Pakistan.

A practitioner of Unani medicine, Gyan Chand was bestowed with the title of 'Shahi Hakim' (imperial physician) and started his clinic in the Lower Bazaar of Shimla. Along with this, he realized that the movie halls in the hill town at the time — Regal, Rivoli and Ritz — were all located along the Mall Road. The one-time summer capital of the British continued with the colonial tradition that everyone visiting the Mall Road had to be dressed in formal attire. This meant there was no movie hall for the common folk!

With the aim of creating a movie theatre for the common people of Shimla, Chand found a suitable place in the erstwhile office of the Republican Party of India, which began as part of the Scheduled Castes Federation founded by Dr BR Ambedkar and aimed to abolish the caste system in the country. Located on the upper section of the Rai Bahadur Puran Mull Dharamshala on Cart Road in Ram Bazaar, the premises eventually became Shahi Theatre. Till today, the rooftop of the theatre displays the name, allowing people to locate it easily.

Reminiscing about the history of the theatre, Sahil Sharma, grandson of Gyan Chand, said, “At that time, cinema halls were for the elite and not the masses. There would be dances organized for the common people. My grandfather started with those dances, which were called ‘zinda [live] dance’ so that there was some footfall.

"This was done while they were waiting for permission for the cinema. The other three cinemas went to court, stating that Shimla did not have the space to accommodate four cinema halls and the fourth should not be allowed to open. While the case was on, the zinda dance was held, along with some magic shows, etc. After we won the case in 1953, all the cinema people were very gracious and film exhibition started.”

Sharma took over the reins of the business in 2002 after his father passed away but had been involved in its running since he was a boy. He said, “I have been sitting in this cinema hall since I was in Class 10. I used to go for the evening-show bookings from school when my father used to be in Bombay. I used to sell tickets and come back home at 11pm.

“We renovated the theatre and were the first to install the silver screen, 3D cinema and reclining seats. In fact, Shimla’s screens were rated the best in North India,” Sharma continued. The theatre today has both 35mm projection as well as a digital projector system along with Dolby sound. Originally equipped to seat 351 people, it now accommodates 251 after renovation.

A view of the seats at Shahi Theatre, Shimla

The then chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, watched the film Parineeta (2005) here on the famous and rare U-shaped balcony. Dara Singh was a frequent visitor and Baby Naaz and Mahendra Kapoor are just some of the people from Tinseltown known to have watched films here.

However, the ravages of time have not been kind to theatres in the hill town. Of the four theatres in Shimla, only Shahi remains. Regal burnt down in 1983 and was never reconstructed due to some legal disputes, Rivoli was declared unsafe and also shut down some years ago. Despite the challenges posed by the coming of the multiplexes, Ritz and Shahi continued in business.

The financial wreckage unleashed by the pandemic, however, sounded the death knell for Ritz, which has also shut down now. A multiplex near the inter-state bus terminus, SRS Cinema, also seems to have met the same fate, effectively making Shahi the last theatre standing and certainly the last single-screen standing.

Despite being a heritage building with an illustrious history, the theatre faces an uncertain future now.

“We all were and are still surviving out of our own pockets," said Sharma. "But as soon as the pandemic came, the future became uncertain. We don’t know when the movies will start coming. The government says it has allowed theatres to open, but where are the movies? My manager has been working with us for the past 50 years. My operator will be completing 50 years next year. They are like family members to us, where will they go?”

Although the owners have continued to pay maintenance bills and staff salaries, things have been tough and the government seems to have turned a blind eye to their situation. “When relief is being given to dhaba owners, restaurants and hotels, why not to cinema people?" Sharma wondered. "The government should also think about this. If we got the same reprieve given to hotel owners, even that would have been fine. However, we have been paying salaries to the staff and have told them that whenever things get normal, we will restart it properly.”

Over-the-top platforms have further shrunk the appetite of the audience for watching films in cinemas, but Sharma insists that if the content is good, people will flock to the theatres once again. “Till the time 'Bollywood' [commercial Hindi cinema] works on its content, there is no chance of revival," the exhibitor said. "The cinema people can only do so much. We have put the best seats, screen and speakers. Now, they have to work on the content.”

In spite of the manifold challenges, Sharma remains undeterred. "I am optimistic about the future," he said. "I want to revive [the theatre] and want that it should run forever. I am the third generation and my son is there because this is our heritage. We have an emotional attachment to it. We have many other businesses, but this theatre is really attached to my heart."

Only time will reveal the fate of this lone relic from the cinematic salad days of a town with a celebrated history. For now, the owners are determined to not let it fade into the shadows.

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